Sunday, September 30, 2018

praise the lord and pass the ammunition

I did something this year that I have never done before. I went to work on Yom Kippur. And I lived to tell the tale.

I have had a very turbulent relationship with religion my entire life. Growing up, my family was not at all observant. Sure, we knew we were Jews, but we didn't belong to a synagogue. We lived in a predominantly gentile neighborhood and I suffered my share of antisemitic remarks from contemporaries whom I sometimes identified as "friends." I attended a handful of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services with some friends from school who lived in "Jewish" neighborhoods and whose families were members of various synagogues. I figured a day off from school was worth putting on a suit and tie and sitting in a room for hours, full of folks who were chanting in a language I didn't understand. Yom Kippur was the tough one, because not only was I stuck in synagogue until sundown, but it was a fast day, so there would be no break for lunch. While I did go to services with my friends, but not every year. The years I didn't go, I just stayed home from school and watched TV. Even though I wasn't attending services, my mother believed it was better to stay home than go to school and have the non-Jews talk about me.

When I met Mrs. Pincus, I was exposed to a whole undiscovered world of religious observance. Her family was very traditional (not Orthodox, but from my parents' standpoint, they were right out of Fiddler on the Roof.) They belonged to a suburban Philadelphia synagogue and attended services regularly, not just on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They went on Simchat Torah, Purim and a bunch of other holidays I swear they were making up (like Shemini Atzeret.) Hell, my father-in-law went several mornings a week! In addition, my new in-laws maintained a kosher home and I soon was informed that, after Mrs. Pincus and I married, we would observe kashrut in our home as well. I was okay with the new rules in my life. Actually, I found it fairly interesting, especially from an historical aspect. Judaism offers a lot of detailed explanation as to why things are done and the importance of tradition (just like that song from Fiddler on the Roof. Maybe my parents were right.) Unlike the blind following of some other religions, Judaism gives reasons for rituals. I'm not saying they are always clear and concise reasons, but they are more that just "because I say so."

When our son was ready for school, he was enrolled in Jewish day school and went through twelve years of intense, dual-curriculum study. In those twelve years, he grew into what we call a "mensch." But he also absorbed and processed the knowledge was offered to him and questioned every single concept and idea that didn't sit right. And he questioned a lot of teachers. He was respectful (something he must have gotten from his mother), but he wasn't about to let anyone pull one over on him. When he graduated from high school, he was fluent in Hebrew, fluent in all aspects of Judaism but anxious to shed the Jewish cocoon he'd been living in since he was born. He focused his attention on secular studies in college with his goal being employment in his chosen field of broadcasting. And he ceased attending religious services. I, however, did not. I continued to go to services on Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and the occasional other holiday.... I just wasn't sure why. This feeling wasn't new. This was something I wondered about for years. What was I doing here? Religious services really made no sense to me. I am not particularly spiritual. When I was a kid, I went because my friends went. When I got older, I went because my wife went and I thought it would set a good example for my child. But now — here I was and my son was off doing something decidedly not "services-y." I realized I was doing this solely to please others... and I didn't like that.

A few years ago, my father-in-law, a pious and observant man, was unceremoniously and unfairly ousted from duties that he had voluntarily performed regularly at synagogue for years. Despite having the proverbial rug pulled out from under him, he continued to attend services. I, however, stopped. That was the last straw. The turning point. My epiphany. Although religion never played a strong role in my life, I had respect for those for whom it did. I always felt that religion offered a common bond for its followers and offered comfort and serenity and a sense of being. But after witnessing the vindictive and underhanded nature of the scheme to relieve my father-in-law of his sense of being, I saw religion and its followers in a whole new light, although it was a light that I had always suspected. Religion is about people and control and stature and ranking and classes and bullshit. Mostly bullshit. I have seen the old men that gather at early morning services. I have seen them look scornfully at one another in their little cliques and whisper. I have seen them gather afterwards and analyze the day's proceedings like a post-game show after the Super Bowl. "This one didn't stand up at the right time. That one didn't sing the correct tune for that prayer." That's what they discuss. Not the meaning of the morning's Torah passage, but who was on the wrong page and who came in late.

See? Bullshit.

And that's why I went to work this year. I don't care about the tedium of religion. I don't see how standing up or sitting down at any particular time can assure me a free pass to Heaven. I don't think that covering my head while reciting a bunch of words in a language that I don't understand will keep me in the good graces of a "higher being." And don't even get me started on that concept.

I had a pretty productive day at work. And I didn't have to dodge a single lightning bolt.

1 comment:

  1. I find your observations about Judaism interesting, and I agree with your conclusions about people and power religion in general. Too bad about your father-in-law's ousting. I hope he finds something else to put his energy into. From things you've written about him before he sounds like an energetic and interesting man.